A Selkie Legend . . .

Here’s a great example of the sort of Selkie myth that inspired Tempest Rising.  Thank you very much to Sigurd Towrie for allowing me to reproduce this from his wonderful site, Heritage of Orkney. 

The Goodman o’ Wastness

The Goodman o’ Wastness was a handsome, well-to-do young fellow.

Strong, well-liked and with a profitable farm, it will come as no surprise to learn that many of the unmarried local girls had their sights on him.

However, despite their ample attentions the Goodman was a man who was simply not interested in marriage.

Their advances spurned, the local girls soon began to treat the Goodman with contempt.

Describing him as “an old, young man” and “old before his time” in their eyes he was committing the unpardonable sin of celibacy.

The Goodman, however, paid these malicious creatures little heed and as is more often the case, the gossips soon turned their attentions elsewhere. When questioned by his friends as to the reason he would not take himself a wife, the Goodman would smile and simply explain:

“Weemin ir lik minny ither tings in dis weary wurld, only sent fur a trial tae man an’ I hae trials aplenty withoot bein’ tried be a wife. If yin owld fool Adam hiddno been bewitched be his wife, he might still be in the Gerdeen o’ Eden the day.”

Women are like many other things in this weary world, only sent as a trial to men and I have enough trials without being tried by a wife. If that old fool Adam had not been bewitched by his wife, he might still be in the Garden of Eden to this day

One old woman who heard this oft-repeated speech, remarked:

“Tak thoo heed theesel, fur thou’ll mibbe be yursel’ bewitched wan day.”

Heed well what you say, you will maybe be bewitched yourself one day

“Aye,” replied the Goodman, laughing. “That’ll be when thou waaks dry-shod fae the Alters o’ Seenie tae da Boar o’ Papey”

That will be when you walk from the Alters o’ Seenie to the Boar o’ Papa [Orkney placenames] without wetting your feet

So it came to pass that one fine day the Goodman was down on the ebb when he saw, a short distance away, a number of selkie-folk lying out on a flat rock.

Some of these selkie-folk were sunning themselves in the afternoon warmth while others jumped and played in the clear water. All were naked with unblemished skins as white as snow. Their enchanted seal-skins lay strewn carelessly on the sand and rocks around them.

The Goodman crept closer to their basking rock.

As he neared the place the selkie-folk played, the Goodman leapt to his feet and ran towards them for all he was worth. With a shriek the selkie-folk snatched up their seal skins and quickly retreated to the safety of the sea. However, swift as they were, the Goodman was quicker and he managed to seize a skin belonging to one beautiful seal-maiden.

In the hasty rush to safety this poor creature had forgotten to retrieve her skin.

The selkie-folk swam out a little distance and turned to gaze mournfully at the Goodman. He stared back and realised that all, save one, had taken the shape of seals. Grinning, he put the captured seal-skin under his arm. Whistling a merry tune he set out for home.

No sooner had he left the ebb than he heard the most sorrowful wailing and weeping coming from behind him. Turning, he saw a fair woman following him. She was a most pitiful sight. Sobbing and howling in grief, she held her arms out and pled to have her skin returned. Huge tears ran from her large dark eyes and trickled down her ivory cheeks.


Falling to her knees, she cried:

“O bonnie man! If thur’s inny mercy in thee human breest, gae me back me ain selkie skin! I cinno live in da sea withoot it. I cinno bide amung me ain folk waythoot me selkie-skin.”

Oh handsome man, if there is any mercy in your human breast give me back my seal-skin. I can not live in the sea without it. I cannot live among my own people without my seal-skin

The Goodman was not a soft-hearted man but he could not help but pity the poor creature. Pity, however, was not the only emotion he felt. With the pity came the softer and sweeter passion of love.

The icy heart that had yet to love a mortal woman was soon melted by this seal-maiden’s beauty.

Eventually the Goodman managed to wring from the Selkie Wife a reluctant consent to remain with him as his wife. She had little choice in the matter for as you all Orcadian know, she could not return to her kin in the sea without her skin.

So the sea-maiden went with the Goodman and stayed with him for many a day. She turned out to be a thrifty, frugal and kindly wife and although she was a creature of the sea the Goodman had a happy life with her.

The Selkie Wife bore the Goodman seven children.

Four boys and three girls came from their union and it was said that there were no children as beautiful as them in all the isles. And all the while the sea-wife, and her human husband, seemed content and merry.

But all was not as it seemed – there was a weight in the Selkie Wife’s heart. Many was the time that she was seen to gaze longingly out to the sea. The sea that was her true home.

So to all the islanders and to the Goodman himself all seemed well with his family. But as is always the case in these tales, the bliss was not to last.

One fine day, the Goodman and his four sons were out fishing in their boat. With the menfolk out of the house, the Selkie Wife sent three of the girls down to the ebb to gather limpets and whelks for their tea. The youngest girl had to remain at home because she had hurt her foot climbing on the sharp rocks by the shore. As usual, as soon as the house emptied, the selkie wife set to looking for her long-lost seal-skin.

She searched high and she searched low. She searched “but” and she searched “ben”. She searched out and she searched in but to no avail.

She could not find the skin.

The time passed and the sun swung to the west, lengthening the shadows. The peedie lass, seated in a straw-backed chair with her sore feet on the creepie, watched her mother carry out the frantic hunt.

“Mam, whit ir thoo luckin’ fur?” she asked.

Mother, what are you looking for?

“O’ bairn, dinna tell, bit ah’m luckin’ fur a bonnie skin tae mak a rivlin dat wid sort thee sore fit.” replied the Selkie Wife.

Oh child, don’t tell but I’m looking for a pretty skin to make a shoe that would cure your sore feet

“Bit Mam, ” said the bairn. “I ken fine whar hid is. Wan day when ye war oot and me Fither thowt I wis sleepin’ i’ the bed, he teen a bonnie skin doon, gloured at hid for cheust a peedie meenit, then foldit hid an’ laid hid up under dae aisins abeun da bed.”

But Mother, I know where it is. One day when you were out and my Father thought I was asleep in bed, he took a pretty skin down, glowered at it for a short time, then folded it and put it away in the aisins over the bed

When the Selkie Wife heard this she clapped for joy and rushed to the place where her long-concealed skin lay.

“Fare thee weel, peedie buddo,” she said to her child as she ran from the house.

Rushing to the shore she threw on her skin and with a wild cry of joy plunged into the sea. Shifting again into her selkie form she swam out through the waves where a selkie man was waiting for her and greeted her with delight.

All the while, the Goodman was rowing home and happened to see these two selkies from his little boat. His wife uncovered her beautiful face and cried out to him.

“Fare thee weel. Goodman o’ Wastness. Farewell tae thee. I liked thee weel enough fur thoo war geud tae me bit I love better me man o’ the sea.”

Farewell Goodman of Wastness. Farewell to you. I liked you because you were good to me but I love my husband from the sea more.

That was the last the Goodman ever saw of his sea-wife.

Often though, in the twilight of his years, he could be seen wandering on the empty sea-shore, hoping once again to meet his lost love.

But never again did he look upon her fair face.

7 thoughts on “A Selkie Legend . . .”

  1. 🙂

    Someone in my writing group once did a short story based on the tale of the Seal Wife, and it was pointed out that this was pretty much a rape story. Regardless of how nice the man was, he does take the Selkie Woman against her will.

    I don't know if all the Selkies and Swan Maidens see it that way, but it is still kind of messed up.

    I wonder if Jane's mother ended up and if so, how she felt about it. I guess I just have to wait for the book to come out.

    When does the book come out again?

  2. "I wonder if Jane's mother ended up in the same situation" is what I meant to say

    When's the book coming out again?

  3. The book is coming out in November! YAY!

    And you are absolutely right about the ambivalence of the Selkie mythology. But this is not the only kind; in many, the men innocently come across a seal skin and take it home not knowing what they've done. But I suppose that doesn't really answer the fundamental problem, does it?

    And I tweak the myth A LOT.

  4. It's intriguing how these animal transformation stories are ubiquitous, from Homer through Ovid to A.S.Byatt and contemporary anime. Perhaps they represent our desires to be part of the animal world, or our fears that animals are having a freer, better life than we are having. This story is beautiful; having seen seals sunning on the rocks in Wales with their liquid eyes and sleek curvaceous bodies I can imagine their being objects for fantasies of all kinds.

  5. I've always been drawn to this tale too, though it's one of those tragic-mystic stories that tug at the heart strings from many different directions – including the POV of the ultimately abandoned children. In all the tales I've read the selkie-wife-turned-mother loves her children very much (sometimes the husband too), yet leaves them with barely a backward glance at first chance. Those puir wee bairns! I've read of selkie mothers visiting in seal form to check on their offspring but the actions are still not those of the image of 'mother and mother-love' as we believe she should be. So many things to explore in this myth! I'm really looking forward to reading the book!

    PS One of my favorite films ever is The Secret of Roan Inish. I presume you've seen it. I think this dealt with the myth beautifully and kept the magic very believable too. Beautiful story and beautiful film-making. The soundtrack is lovely too, if you like Celtic things!

  6. That's the EXACT POV (the children's) that always fascinated me, too, and where Jane comes from. And what if you didn't know your heritage? What if you're not from Orkney where, as everyone knows, the seal people are a reality? What if you're just some girl in Maine whose mother disappeared? And thanks! I'm looking forward to you reading it. 😉 I hope you enjoy it.

    That movie is one of my all time faves. You're right about what a good job they did with a myth that is very problematic, as Thom pointed out.

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